A few sentences that helped change the relationship between Fitch's player and coach

Fitch's Connor McCrea bats against Montville in a high school baseball game Thursday in Groton. McCrea had an RBI double in the game, which was won by Montville 11-6. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Fitch's Connor McCrea bats against Montville in a high school baseball game Thursday in Groton. McCrea had an RBI double in the game, which was won by Montville 11-6. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Groton — Jeff Joyce, ever thoughtful and insightful, didn’t see this particular epiphany coming, not with what appeared to be the vanilla task of reading a college essay. Joyce, an English teacher and wordsmith, can do that with one dangling participle tied behind his back.

And then, as if the universe was telling him he was doing this for a reason, the epiphany engulfed him like an avalanche.

“I just felt so bad,” Joyce was saying Wednesday night. “All I could do after was thank Connor for sending it.”

Connor: Connor McCrea, a senior pitcher at Fitch High, where Joyce is the baseball coach. Actually, the heretofore nitpicky baseball coach when it came to matters of McCrea, who just wasn’t able to match talent with production.

Suddenly, Joyce knew why.

McCrea’s essay, the one that would ultimately help him gain admission to Keene State, told the story of a life overcoming Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, otherwise known as ADHD. A common ailment among many of us. But still: a label. With a stigma. And when is somebody ever going to share the story of how one conquers such a daunting daily disorder anyway?

“That essay changed me,” Joyce said. “Not only as I saw Connor, but as I saw my own children. Connor was so honest about how his ADHD and learning disability deflated his self-esteem. And how he continued to sink and sink. Baseball, the one area he excelled at, he wasn’t excelling at anymore.”

This was about the end of his sophomore year at Fitch.

“The medications were impacting his physical abilities. He seemed comatose. Little did I know, he and his family were trying to regulate his medications so he could function as a baseball player,” Joyce said. “On top of that, the ADHD was impacting him in the classroom. So you’ve got this perfect storm.

“So I read his essay. I didn’t care about the quality. I cared about the content. I felt so bad for him. I felt guilty. I went to him and said, ‘Kid, thank you so much for sending that. I don’t even care what we do on the field this year. This alone was worth meeting Connor McCrea.’”

And with that, Joyce could barely continue.

“I’m getting emotional,” he said, voice teetering and eyes welling.

This is what happens when you meet kids who change you. That’s McCrea. He overcame. With the support of his family and friends, sure. But with some toughness that clearly runs like a current through his innards.

McCrea has emerged as an honors student taking Advanced Placement classes. He’s among Fitch’s best players. And he’s headed to college. ADHD? A fact of his life. ADHD? It hardly defines him.

“It started around third grade,” McCrea was saying. “I had trouble paying attention. As I went on in school, it got a little worse. It’s hard to hard to explain. I had to learn how to deal with it. Even with baseball, as you saw (Wednesday, when he was the losing pitcher in a 6-5 gutbuster to East Lyme), toward the end of the game I lost a little focus. It’s been a struggle.”

Then McCrea paused and said, “After sophomore year, I just decided that I didn’t like failing. It doesn’t suit me well. All junior year, I started to see myself improve a lot. Just because of my mentality.”

Consider, though, how deeply ADHD affects the mentality. You want to focus. But you seemingly try twice as hard just to focus half as much.

“I’ve learned a few things,” McCrea said with a wry grin, as if to suggest he has ADHD’s number. “Like I give myself timeouts. When I’m doing homework or something. If I feel like I’m losing focus, I just stop. Take a break. Even if it’s five minutes. It really helps. That’s what I’d tell everybody who has ADHD or if they’re a parent with a kid who has it. If you need a break, take it. But keep pushing yourself.”

Funny, too, how McCrea has taught his coach as many lessons as his coach has imparted to him. Maybe that’s why the reward of coaching kids isn’t in the paycheck.

“I had to take a step back and be honest with myself,” Joyce said, alluding to his early days coaching McCrea. “All he heard from me was criticism. Last year, after we lost a game at Hall, he was pitching. That’s when I noticed he just checked out. I was angry with him. I knew the type of talent he had. Why wasn’t it expressing itself? Maybe because, as the coach, I wasn’t doing a good job of allowing it to express itself.

“So I got into the summer and Connor was my first objective. My first point of contact. I wanted to reestablish a relationship. I sent him a few texts per week telling him how good he is. I wasn’t blowing smoke either. We developed a positive relationship.”

Which made McCrea comfortable enough to share the essay that changed his coach.

“I feel like I can tell him anything,” McCrea said.

McCrea said all this after a difficult loss. He was pitching Wednesday when the Falcons had a 5-4 lead over East Lyme into the seventh. But then, a loss on some nothing day in May can’t compare to what McCrea has already conquered.

“If Connor were David Letterman, this loss wouldn’t be in his top 10,” Joyce said. “Even on a bad day, he competed. He gave himself a chance. To me, the baseball stuff is the icing on the cake compared to what’s in store for this kid. I may not win a state championship with this team, but I definitely have won one with Connor. He’s going to college. Getting a degree. Having dealt with all those challenges. How great is that?”

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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